Oil lobbyists determined federal policy of offshore drilling safety

The Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service allowed the oil industry to write federal policy governing the implementation of safety systems and backups, according to a New York Times report.

“Federal regulators warned offshore rig operators more than a decade ago that they needed to install backup systems to control the giant undersea valves known as blowout preventers (BOPs), used to cut off the flow of oil from a well in an emergency,” the report says.

The MMS first sounded the warning in 2004 and then again last year, but it never took proper measures to codify the enhancements, which almost certainly would have prevented a disaster like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill from occurring.

Instead, the MMS allowed oil companies to police themselves, deferring to industry assurances that its own protections were enough. Ironically, the government’s lack of enforcement continued despite frequent blowouts and oil leaks in the Gulf. From 2001 to 2007, 1,443 serious offshore drilling accidents were reported to the MMS, resulting in 41 deaths, 302 injuries, and 356 oil spills.

Perhaps the federal government has remained so lax because these blowouts haven’t threatened to be catastrophic enough, until now.

Just last year, BP and other offshore drillers joined forces to coordinate an attack on a new proposed rule that would have greatly enhanced worker safety and prevention of environmental hazards. BP said that the proposed measures were unnecessary and persuaded the MMS to allow it and other offshore drillers to determine their own safety procedures.

The MMS estimated that oil companies would spend about $4.6 million in start-up costs and $8 million in annual costs to maintain an adequate, federally standardized safety program. BP has spent about that much every day since the Deepwater Horizon sank and will likely be liable for tens of billions of dollars in environmental and economic damages.

According to the New York Times, “numerous Congressional and internal investigations have called the oversight agency badly mismanaged and at times corrupt. It has been rocked by regular scandals, including disclosures in 2008 that agency officials took bribes and engaged in drug use and sex with oil industry officials. And its own scientists have said that senior agency officials in recent years revised staff reports to eliminate environmental concerns that might have complicated oil-company drilling applications for offshore sites in waters near Alaska.”

The federal agency attempted to step up blowout prevention safety on offshore rigs after an employee on an oil platform accidentally hit the wrong switch in February 2000 and spilled thousands of gallons of oil into the Gulf. A federal report on the incident found that “the rig was not equipped with a secondary system capable of securing the well in absence of the primary BOP controls.”

The MMS warned the oil industry that blowout preventer safety was seriously flawed in 2000 and again in 2009, saying that offshore drillers needed “ a reliable backup system in place.” However, MMS officials never even attempted to write and propose new BOP backup system regulations.

To make matters worse, the agency reduced the number of times it would inspect BOPs from once a week to once every two weeks, saying that the inspections were too distracting to drilling efforts.

In 2003, a consultant working for the MMS found that the remotely controlled submersible vehicles used to activate the BOPs in the event of primary control failures were frequently unreliable, moving too slowly and lacking power to close the valve in the event of a blowout.

This was the case with the Deepwater Horizon blowout.

According to the New York Times, the same consultant also found that the shear ram, the component of the submersible vehicles that is supposed to cut through the well pipe quickly to stop the oil leak, was often too weak to cut through the drill pipes.

According to the consultant, “this grim snapshot illustrates the lack of preparedness in the industry to shear and seal a well with the last line of defense against a blowout,” West Engineering reported in 2004.

Still, even with credible, independent analyses of these safety shortcomings, oil lobbyists prevailed against federal government.